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Written by Diana Gordon   



by Diana R Gordon


In 1992 when the Democrats ended twelve years of right-wing Republican reign in the White House, many Americans dissatisfied with punitive crime measures expected a new direction from President Bill Clinton. Almost immediately, however, it became clear that he would not support major shifts in crime policy. In his first state-of-the-nation address - a speech otherwise celebrating future change - he announced that he would embrace the legislation that had stalled in Congress in the waning days of the Bush administration, and vowed as well to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets.l His first two drug budgets retained the Bush emphasis on law enforcement (though the budget for fiscal year 1995 increased funding for drug prevention and treatment), and he appointed as head of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy an experienced police chief.2 In his second state-of-the-nation address he echoed the currently trendy slogan of legislators all over the country who were ready to dole out life sentences for repeat offenses: "three strikes and you're out."3

In the last quarter-century crime and drugs have been a focal point for much public debate about morality and public safety in the United States. Ordinary citizens and leaders alike often believe that how we address these issues reflects the moral state of the nation. Furthermore, crime and drugs implicate nearly everyone, however peripherally. The debate over crime and drugs has become less important for the possibilities of concrete public action than for its breadth as a contested terrain on which battles over power and principle rage.

In the area of drugs, the dominant policy of selective prohibition (that is, prohibition of such psychoactive substances as heroin and marijuana but not of alcohol and tobacco) has failed to significantly reduce the consumption or sale of dangerous drugs. An estimated twenty-six million people continue to use illicit drugs each year, about five million of them problematically enough to need treatment.4 The evidence of failure can be found in every city; cocaine and heroin emergencies in New York City hospitals rose in each of three successive quarters in 1991 and 1992.5 Other failures, like police corruption and the violence that too often surrounds drug transactions, implicate the prohibitionist nature of drug policy - its tendency to drive up the price of drugs and the profit from dealing in them, the necessity for a drug dealer to be armed in defense against cops and competitors. Studies of drug-related violence in Miami and New York have found that only very small percentages can be attributed to the psychopharmacologic effects of drugs; most violence "is an economic side effect of drug prohibition," notes Brown University community health specialist David C. Lewis, occurring either in the course of crimes committed to buy drugs or in drug dealers' turf wars.6

A major question emerges from these observations: why has prohibition policy become more intense and expansive as evidence has mounted of its failures to achieved declared goals? I have spent three years studying this question in a variety of contexts.

In order to root my analysis in flesh and blood political contests, I conducted five case studies of drug prohibition policymaking, examples of the legislative process in action, at national, state and local levels. They include:

  • the development of a Congressional consensus supporting the death penalty for trafficking by drug "kingpins," even where no murder is committed;
  • the adoption and court-ordered revision of a Michigan law mandating life imprisonment without parole for people convicted of possession of more than 650 grams of opiates or cocaine derivatives;
  • the recriminalization in Alaska, by citizen initiative, of possession of marijuana for personal use (after 15 years of socially uneventful decriminalization);
  • the passage of an and-drug sales tax, in an era of taxpayer revolts, to supply law enforcement with increased resources to fight drugs in Jackson County, Missouri (Kansas City); and
  • the adoption and re-enactment of a Seattle ordinance making it illegal to loiter with intent to engage in an illegal drug transaction.

Early in my research I abandoned the rationalist approach. This perspective would suggest that if the war on drugs were really aimed at reduction of drug abuse and the misery and violence it can engender, serious

and substantive alternatives to the prevailing prohibitionist measures would be undertaken as evidence of failure to meet declared policy goals mounted. Obviously, this was not the case; prohibition is alive and well in America, despite widespread awareness of its failures and some articulate dissenters.7

Even establishing the contours of the paradox proved daunting. Policy could not be considered as an end that is produced by decisions made through the political process, reflecting stable, informed calculations about how best to shape the social and political world. As I interviewed people struggling to have an influence on drug policy I saw them first and foremost defending and promoting visions and interests more deeply rooted than the rather abstract notions of what government interventions could shape human decisions about taking and distributing drugs. I began to see drug policy as a resource for furthering values - of security, order and participation - and staking claims - to material and political success, to public goods.8 Public policy is a means as well as an end. Viewed this way, the persistence of drug prohibition makes much more sense. Its politics reflect broad, enduring cultural, social, and economic forces more than a desire to rid ourselves of the most destructive effects of our "drug problem." This article explores those politics.

The Shadow Agenda of American Drug Prohibition

Eliminating drug abuse is not the only item on the policy agenda that produces and sustains drug prohibition. A dark and volatile shadow agenda - distinct from the declared action agenda of government and the broader agenda of items for public discussion (but profoundly influencing both of them) - drives current American drug policy. That agenda includes racial and generational conflicts, as well as the quest for political and material gain, and embraces prohibitionist policies as mechanisms for marginalizing "the dangerous classes." Overlooking or discounting the influence of this shadow agenda both impedes progress in achieving effective and humane drug control and also distracts citizens and policymakers from addressing the larger policy concerns of poverty, inequality, disease and alienation that produce and reflect dangerous use of psychoactive drugs.

The variety and depth of wants and needs that sustain prohibition is extraordinary. The near-universal yearning for personal safety gives governing elite's a chance to demonstrate the social control capabilities of the state, manage the "dangerous classes" in American society, feather their own nests politically and materially, and replace the economic and politcal opportunities of the Cold War with others that require similar kinds of activities and expenditures. Neighborhood activists can embrace the anti-drug crusade to protect property interests and the ideology which supports them, or promote institutional growth for the local forces of order. Ordinary citizens who take up the drug-control banner can find meaning in political life by participating in reviving what many feel is a threatened moral consensus. And all of the above actors can be genuinely committed to furthering physical security. The allure of prohibition is irresistible.

None of the above is meant to suggest that there is not a real and substantial social condition - compulsive use of some mind-altering substances (including the licit drugs as well as illicit ones) - that is medically dangerous and socially destructive to both users and their contacts, and which people have good reason to ask government to address. And pointing out that many conditions other than drug abuse make up "the drug problem" is not to deny that drug abuse interacts with and exacerbates those ills. Furthermore, drug abuse takes on a particularly agonizing cast when it is concentrated in communities - principally the nation's inner cities - already burdened with disease and disadvantage; the drama of armed and dangerous young people dependent in one way or another on the illegal drug industry is a genuine tragedy. Finally, there is a cultural logic in the contemporary choice of a prohibitionist approach to drug-taking. A1- though the criminalization of opiates and cocaine derivatives, for example, is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon, the United States has been strongly punitive since before it was a nation, favoring the stick over the carrot to control behavior since its Puritan days.9

The strains which have given rise to the shadow agenda of drug prohibition - like declining material security (for cities as well as for individuals), family instability, racial polarization, and political alienation - are likely to persist in the American polity. If no other all-purpose carrier of values and interests equivalent to the drug problem emerges to hold such a wide variety of discontents, many citizens will continue to project their yearnings for relief from these broader discontents onto drug prohibition. Its symbolic role as a response to latent political demand will be, as it is now. more important politically than targeting and conquering the most pernicious consequences of compulsive drug use.

In this context some note that the issue of drugs has become like the issue of communism in the Cold War years in its evocation of a great range of public fears. It is true that with both issues people project individual insecurities onto what is perceived to be a serious and insidious collective threat. But the similarity goes deeper than that. With communism, the danger was perhaps named more precisely; the subversives hunted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and the local and national policies derided as communistic - national health insurance, flouride supplements for drinking water - would lead to an alternative means of organizing economic production and distribution that would end our world as we knew it. But of course for those who led the anti-Communist charge the world they sought to preserve was one of hierarchies - boss and worker, market and state - both familiar and profitable. Similar layers of meaning constitute the menace of drugs, though the context is cast as social rather than economic. At a superficial level drugs threaten addiction and depravity; what is also at stake, however, the alarmists believe, is fundamental hierarchies of authority - parents over children, the affluent over the poor, lighter races over darker ones, accumulators over dependents - and the mediating mechanisms, like law enforcement and media socialization, for reinforcing their legitimacy.

A complete picture of the determinants of prohibitionist policies includes three principal shadow agenda items. They are not all present in all instances of prohibition policy-making, for several reasons. In the first place, drug control is primarily undertaken through the criminal law, which in our federal system is largely state and local - although with increasing frequency it is overridden and sometimes overshadowed by national initiatives - and is intended to reflect diversity in local conditions, attitudes and solutions. In addition, the anxieties that propel the shadow agenda, like concern about drugs themselves, wax and wane as material and cultural forces shift. Unforeseen events - earthquakes, international conflicts - can push aside even the pressing economic and social concerns that may fuel drug prohibition, at least momentarily.

Despite the variability of policy politics, however, themes emerge from the five cases of drug prohibition policy process. They tell us a good deal about what else worries Americans besides drugs and how those worries are poured into the crucible of drug prohibition.

Controlling the Unruly. Critics of the recurrent drug wars often charge that they are fought against black people, or minorities more generally. They point out that penalties for the drugs (primarily crack) that African-Americans are most likely to use may be harsher than for other drugs, that black women who are drug users are more likely to be prosecuted for endangering a fetus than white women, and that state sentences are longer for black drug traffickers than for whites.l0 There is certainly a good deal of racism in American drug prohibition, and has been for more than a hundred years. The current visibility of young black and Hispanic retail drug dealers in the inner cities, and law enforcement concentration on them, has sustained the myth of minorities as carriers of a plague of drug abuse.

But, in addition, drug prohibition feeds on a broader kind of impulse of exclusion, one that embraces control not only of minorities but also of youth and aliens and civil libertarians (or what might be called cultural liberals, who base their tolerance of alternative lifestyles less on notions of individual right than on celebration of occasional hedonism). This targeting reflects the ideology of cultural conservatism, which aims to turn back the clock to a time of greater legitimacy for public and private authority over groups who, since the dawn of the civil rights movement, have demanded greater freedom and status.1l As with authoritarian impulses in general, it is fueled in part by the insecurities of a faltering economy.

The appeal of controlling the dangerous classes as an item on the shadow agenda depends as much on the role of the actor in the policy process as on ideology or purely political motives. Those who formulate policy - legislators usually, but also executive actors at various governmental levels - may measure their success as much in terms of the images of leadership they project in the act of delineating rules or programs as on the content of those measures. Those who implement the initiatives of the formulators into workable program are more likely to be judged by how they perform that process than by policy outcome or vision. Activists outside government are crucial to the policy process as representatives of organized interests, whether they are a small group of corporate executives or the parents of America Their aim is to get rewards from government - rights as well as subsidy - and they have little incentive to promote, either substantively or symbolically, interests of groups other than their own. These various policy roles interact in controlling the dangerous classes through drug prohibition.

Acquiring and Maintaining Political Power. The intensity of public concem about drugs and the hammerlock of prohibition on drug policy have forced many politicians (particularly those from urban areas) to take positions on the governmental role in fighting drug abuse. But the salience of the issue can be both curse and blessing. Since support for law enforcement approaches to drugs is all but unanimous, simple endorsement of getting tough on users and dealers is not enough to give candidates for public office an advantage over their opponents; such an endorsement, in fact, is a minimum defense against being labeled soft on drugs. On the other hand, the drama that can be associated with the problem of drug abuse legitimizes what might otherwise seem like contests of braggadocio over get-tough policies, creating ample opportunity for pushing the policy frontiers into new territory, such as legislating oddball penalties ranging from the loss of a student loan or mortgage guarantee to death. (This pattern holds for street crime policy battles, too, to which drug control debates are obviously closely related.) "The drug problem" becomes an irresistible resource for getting or keeping political power.

Meeting Material Needs. Since the national tax revolt combined with fiscal crises for states and cities in the mid-1970s, local services of many kinds have been severely pinched.12 In the competition for very scarce resources managers of public programs scramble to identify dramatic manifestations of the broader problems they seek funds to address. Drug abuse, calling up images of death and degradation, is a tempting hook on which to hang the legitimization of more routine funding needs. In the private sector a similar pattern emerges. The failure rate of American businesses (most of them small) leaped from an annual average for the four years 1973-1976 of 38 per 10,000 enterprises to an average of 113 for 1983-1986, a decade later.l3 This latter figure is alarmingly close to the average annual failure rate during the depths of the Depression (1930-1933) of 127.3.l4 It is hardly surprising that in such an economic environment business would seek maximum public assistance in reaching its markets. Pleas for protection from the general incivility of urban streets that can deter customers are particularly persuasive when couched in terms of drug transactions, activities most emblematic of larger threats to retail trade.

Drug Prohibition and the Dangerous Classes

The designation of "dangerous classes" is not limited to particular regimes or eras, nor does it necessarily reflect the social harm they cause. Dangerous classes are constructed in the context of their role - usually, but not always, as victims - in social and economic upheavals like enclosure, urbanization, or industrialization. The source of their dangerousness, then, goes beyond the immorality of individual deviance or harm to immediate victims to the larger threat to society their actions constitute. They challenge the state's search for stability and the legitimacy of the criminal law in "maintaining bonds of obedience and deference. '' l

Although the most visible and immediate dangers posed by dangerous classes have always been what we now call street crimes, behind them lay the specter of greater challenges - sometimes overt dangers like political violence, more often passive ones like drunkenness and sloth - to an economic and social structure that bred burglars and vagabonds. 16 A deviance as obvious as thievery is easy to attribute to individual pathology or venality. Giving thieves or vagrants a derisive label and treating them as pariahs enhances the respectability of others, as Durkheim recognized. It also reduces the likelihood that respectable people will see robbery or riot as evidence of larger institutional failures in their society. The remedies for deviance were alms and punishment; then as now, they are presumed to avert both immediate harm and more general subversion.

In the United States the concept of dangerous classes arose with the industrialization of the nineteenth century, rooted in a moral redefinition of poverty that helped discipline workers to a low-wage market economy.l7 A missionary's description, early in the period, of tenement dwellers in New York City as "a commingled mass of venomous filth and seething sin" suggests the core association of crime with poverty.l8 Migration and immigration - the unprecedented flow into cities of people displaced from farms by agricultural mechanization and from far-off lands by poverty and pogrom - added threats of disease and dissent to those of urban crime.l9 After the Civil War, the ethnic cast of American dangerous classes - the big-city gangs of that era were invariably Irish, and many of the "ignorant, untrained, passionate, irreligious boys and young men" were German by birth or ancestry - was supplemented by race. The newly freed blacks could be demonized as both primitive and dangerous, and the perceived immoralities of the Chinese in the West included prostitution, gambling, and opium.20 In the early decades of the twentieth century the association of blacks and cocaine as well as that of Mexicans and marijuana brought drug-taking within the congeries of dangers posed by the "criminal element."21

A contemporary rationalist could be forgiven for thinking that in late twentieth-century America, our greater sophistication about causality and the highly contingent nature of social threat would have buried the concept of dangerous classes. Few policy actors would now assume that the poor even those not engaged in lawful work - are more criminal than the affluent, even if they commit disproportionate numbers of the kinds of crimes to which they have access. And the blatant nativism that enshrined the image of the foreign criminal and stimulated legislation to disarm aliens has passed.22 Yet divisions of race, class, gender, alienage and social ideology not only persist but seem to be deepening. They express defiance of inevitable trends of ethnic and cultural pluralism and respond to what appear to be long-term and national economic insecurities. And these divisions feed an ideology that personifies these threats in drug users, street gang members, and welfare mothers, who resurrect the blending images of poverty, idleness and moral degeneracy that characterized earlier dangerous classes. Today's dangerous classes include segments of the diverse communities of racial and ethnic minorities; young people who exhibit some degree of independence from their elders' direction and values; and aliens and the "new immigrants" who have come to the U.S. from Third World countries since preferences in the immigration law changed in 1965. A fourth group is what can perhaps best be called cultural liberals - crudely, those who tolerate (and occasionally celebrate) drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll and do so in the name of individual freedom. Political scientist Murray Edelman makes the point that those whose dangerousness flows from their resistance to definitions of the dangerousness of others - blacks and youth, for instance - elicit particularly intense antagonisms because explaining the awful consequences of their deviance is strategically problematic. 3

The Role of Race: Drug Politics in Seattle and Kansas City

Both drug abuse and drug prohibition have taken a disproportionate toll on African-Americans. As a result, both the punitive policy approach to illicit drugs and proposals to legalize them are frequently attacked as racist.24 Definitions of racism in this context are complex and require looking beyond immediate criminal justice policy and practice to power politics and to more structural forces - the American commitment to unbridled competition and our very individualistic definitions of public safety - that both create disincentives to law-abiding behavior and spotlight the vulnerabilities of minorities and the poor to them.

The dynamics of the drug loitering law in Seattle illustrate the complex influences of race on criminal justice policy. Seattle has a beautiful setting, a vibrant cultural life, good schools, and low unemployment - suggesting not only the amenities of the place but its embrace of consensus as the way to get things done. Retaining the image of "America's most livable city" - the puffery of travel brochures and postcards, which few visitors or residents dispute - is important for Seattle as it becomes a commercial and cultural node of the Pacific rim. The arrival of open-air drug markets in the city has challenged that image. As part of an effort to disrupt those markets in June 1990 the City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting "drug traffic loitering," providing that a person who "remains in a public place and intentionally solicits, induces, or procures another to engage in" a drug transaction is guilty of a "gross misdemeanor" (punishable by up to a year in jail.)25 Conflict over the drug loitering law challenged the city's social mythology of tolerance and pluralism and raised the issue of a kind of racism of effect (rather than intent).

Minority residents saw the proposed law taking effect in an atmosphere of police hostility to them. Harriett Walden, who organized a grassroots organization called Mothers Against Police Harassment in 1990, points to the event that galvanized her activism, a time when police stopped her sons on the way to a community festival, took them to the local precinct and "roughed them up" before letting them go, despite the fact that they had no records and "had no gang clothes or paraphernalia."26 Such incidents are common, according to Jeri Ware, who chairs Seattle's Human Rights Commission, and have worsened since her youth. "Then I never saw black men spread out on the ground, down on their knees," she says.

"The police hide behind the drug thing...One day soon these young people are going to fight back."27 The rancor extends beyond street-level police-community relations to institutional indifference. Ware complains that the Seattle Police Department resisted the Commission's investigation of the Department's handling of complaints mandated by a City Council resolution passed in tandem with the drug loitering law (and intended to address the concerns of the law's opponents). To the resulting report's conclusion that "the Commission is convinced we are approaching a serious crisis of community confidence in the Police Department" the Council responded with what Ware considers inadequate concessions - agreement to appoint an auditor without subpoena power as a substitute for the requested civilian complaint review board, for example.28

Concerns that the loitering law would be enforced primarily against minorities appeared justified when an American Civil Liberties Union study of arrests made in the first eighteen months of the law's implementation was released. It found not only that 76.6 percent of arrestees were black (in a city where only 10 percent of the population is black), but also that more than half were never charged, lending credence to the charge of Gerard Sheehan, Legislative Director of the ACLU, that the law "is used as a street-sweep device."29

The responses of the Police Department, the Seattle City Council and the Mayor to evidence that in its first two years the drug loitering law had been applied in a racially discriminatory manner are perhaps even more telling than the evidence itself. A police official said that the guidelines for arrests presently required more evidence of loitering than in the early days of the law.3 The new Chair of the Council's Public Safety Committee speculated that the arrest patterns were "to some extent an accident of geography.''31 A representative of the Mayor said the ordinance was working and should not be thrown out because of pre-existing "tensions between the community and the police."32 No attempt to deny the racially lopsided impact was made in any official response. In fact, it is hard to escape the conclusion that supporters of the ordinance found that fact no more than a politically inconvenient irrelevance. They rejected a proposal to re-impose a sunset provision on the law, mandating reconsideration of it in two years, and made the ordinance permanent.

One of Seattle's many sources of civic pride is its tolerance. The city's leaders speak of the active local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union with respect, and both blacks and whites say race relations are generally better than in most large American cities. But the city's minority community is relatively small and powerless. It may be that this political fact of life is more relevant than Seattle's vaunted culture of civic liberalism when it comes to the formulation of local drug policy - which, in this case, has more than a tinge of racism.

Norm Rice, Seattle's first African-American Mayor - a consensus-oriented former head of the Public Safety Committee on the City Council - could not depend on the black community for his political base. When the loitering law was first proposed he repeatedly stressed that it must not unfairly target minorities. When it came up for renewal, however, Rice pushed for it, as did the white prosecutor, the Police Department, and the largely white crime prevention organizations. In general, Rice seemed to have conceded the license of police to "control the streets" even at the cost of minority harassment; he did not join the King County Democratic Party in condemning an April 1991 gang sweep by police that stopped blacks indiscriminately in South Seattle parks.33

Minority communities' reactions to aggressive drug enforcement apparently targeted at blacks in inner-city neighborhoods varies. Even blacks may approve a law enforcement strategy that focuses disproportionately on blacks. The greatest margins of victory for the Jackson County anti-drug sales tax came from Kansas City wards where low-income blacks are concentrated. A consultant to the sales tax campaign notes that in meetings with community groups blacks were more likely to favor strong law enforcement measures rather than prevention or treatment as solutions to the drug problem in their own communities. At one meeting, in response to the consultant's effort to assure the residents that money from the proposed anti-drug sales tax would be used for prevention as well as police and prisons, a woman rose and said, "The only thing I want you to prevent is them getting out."34

This kind of reaction is not atypical and suggests that in some situations black inner-city residents living in close proximity to open drug dealing and its attendant violence are prepared to trade off some unwarranted surveillance and even occasional harassment of young minority males for a measure of (imagined or real) added protection. And it raises the important questions of what conditions render black communities willing to accede to racially differential attention from law enforcement and what it would take to get those communities to insist on racial neutrality. In the late 1980s the citizens of both Seattle and Kansas City felt menaced by drugs and invaded by gangs - in Seattle it was the Crips and Bloods expanding northward from Los Angeles, in Kansas City Jamaican "posses" began to set up shop in 1986 - but the black community of the latter city was far less ambivalent about law enforcement strategies in the war on drugs that might target them disproportionately. What explains the difference in attitudes?

The behavior and composition of the two cities' police departments do not provide much of an answer. Law enforcement professionals around the country regard both departments as exemplars of enlightened, modern policing. Yet local interviews suggest that in both cities conflicts between police and minority residents have not been uncommon; although fewer incidents of brutality are alleged and reported in the Kansas City press, the most important black community organization, the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, came into being in 1977 in response to what was perceived as police indifference to the slaying of several black prostitutes. The departments are also somewhat similar in minority representation among law enforcement personnel; Seattle's department, with about 9 percent black officers in late 1992, almost reflects the proportion of that racial group in the general population, while Kansas City lags behind, with blacks making up 13 percent of sworn officers, less than half the black share of the city's residents.35

The most complete explanation for the contrast between palpable tensions in police-minority relations in Seattle and relative harmony in Kansas City can apparently be found in influences outside law enforcement. African-Americans in Kansas City may have greater confidence in police because as a community they have the kind of clout that blacks lack in Seattle. Not only do they represent a much greater share of the city's population - 29.6 percent in 1990, as compared with 10.1 percent in Seattle - but the black organization, Freedom, Inc., is the city's most powerful political club.36 Candidates for most local offices routinely seek the tens of thousands of votes it can deliver; it was crucial to the 1991 victory of black Mayor Emanuel Cleaver (another first). The overlap of Freedom, Inc. and the leaders of Ad Hoc also ensures that the latter organization has easy access not only to senior police officials but to City Hall and the county legislature. (This channel of influence is perhaps even more important now than it was when the sales tax was passed in 1989, since the black elite can point to one of its own as mayor.)

The congruence of greater black empowerment and greater willingness to overlook the possibility that the justice system does not operate fairly (even though there is no evidence that its impact is less disproportionately burdensome, or less discriminatory, than in any other large American city) suggests a troubling irony. Greater black political participation in our big cities may not reduce the incidence of racial discrimination in criminal justice if blacks coopt each other into acquiescence in the trade-off of civil rights and liberties for short-term law enforcement protection.

Youth as a Dangerous Class: The Case of Alaska

The inclusion of young people in the category of dangerous classes may strike some as improbable, particularly as they are grouped with racial minorities.37 But the combination of deviance and poverty that is often at the core of the definition has long applied equally to youth and adults. Bands of "vagrant children" displaced from the land roamed the streets of London from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century; "being destitute of Relations, Friends, and all the Necessaries of Life, [they] were become the Pest and Shame of the City."38 In the United States juvenile gangs that flourished in big cities after the Civil War were seen as emblematic of threats to social order generally and private property in particular.39

Before the pot recriminalization initiative in Alaska several polls were taken to provide public information and to aid both proponents and opponents in developing strategies for mounding their campaigns. From the start the polls suggested that the initiative would be likely to pass. Half of the respondents to a 1988 poll by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce said they felt Alaska laws did not "deal adequately with the buying and selling of illegal drugs," and 61 percent favored making the possession of "any of marijuana by adults" illegal.40 But by the time of the November 1990 vote, the issue had been reshaped as a referendum on the ability of the citizens of the state to correct youthful behavior and use the criminal law to shape moral influences on youth, although the law to be changed applied only to adults and possession of pot had never been legal for persons eighteen or under.

Framing and delivering the successful campaign message was not the work of political professionals or Madison Avenue spin doctors. It grew out of the efforts of a few committed volunteers, led by Marie Majewske, the retired elementary school teacher. But Majewske and her allies were not isolated. They had political advice and modest amounts of administrative help from state legislators who had supported anti-marijuana legislation in the past; and supportive media picked up the symbolic messages that the activists were sending. Most important. however, were the contacts the activists had developed through Majewske's strong PTA associations and the approach to drugs they had absorbed through involvement with anti-drug parent organizations around the state. Building on the ''firm NO use philosophy" of Alaskans for Drug-Free Youth, an organization in Ketchikan, Majewske channeled the anxieties of many Alaskans about the present and future of the state's young people into a yes vote for recriminalization.

The Alaska initiative is by no means the first or only political victory won at least partly by what is often referred to simply as "the parents' movement." Marijuana use has been a cultural battleground since the early 1970s; and in the early 1980s organizations like PRIDE (Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education, Inc.) and the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth (NFP), encouraged (and sometimes funded) by the newly-elected Reagan Administration, sprang up. Although they were formed to mobilize parents nationally in the fight against drugs, they sought, more broadly, to preserve "traditional values," including the reestablishment of authority over the young. The theme of dangerous and uncontrollable teenagers dominates much NFP literature. In part, this concem reflects parental worries that their children will be impaired by drugs from participating successfully in what is already a cut-throat competition for jobs and education. But it also reveals a concern about their liability as taxpayers for future support of deviants and a Hobbesian view of youth as monsters who can only be made to conform through fear.


While the implications of race for drug policy are far-reaching and complex, they constitute only a part of the more generalized shadow agenda item of a more comprehensive force of repression and exclusion. The aim is regimentation; what Michel Foucault called the "economy of punishment" operates to restrain and inhibit those already marginalized, whether they are blacks or young people or the liberals who are sympathetic to those groups.41

Whether "the drug problem" will continue to channel the shadow agenda items I have discussed does not depend principally on the quality of drug research, or the persuasiveness of policy dissenters, or which party dominates legislative bodies or the White House. With its symbolic underpinnings, drug prohibition has become a monument to the larger projects of the cultural right: the veneration of the nuclear family and its traditional hierarchies, the (selective) conditioning of political benefits on standards of personal moral behavior, and the retreat from efforts to guarantee social] equality for groups previously outside the white, middle-class mainstream. This association of the policy with a more general ideology means that while that perspective commands widespread attention, prohibition will continue to have powerful proponents. Only rejection of the cultural right - something which, again, can be achieved only in the agenda-setting aura of the policy process, not in legislative debate or program administration - or the discovery of a symbolic substitute will weaken the prohibition edifice. Repudiation of the rightist program won't come easily, since even those political elite's and mass audiences who do not embrace it as a whole are attracted to some of its parts - as is evidenced by Clinton's embrace of the "get-tough" crime bill of his Republican predecessors.

We will of course never be able to strip drug policy - or any other, for that matter - of a shadow agenda, nor should we want to. Symbolism contributes richness to political life, as dreams give meaning to sleep. By their very nature, all political acts carry latent meanings, many of which 42 sustain in us our best hopes for civil society. But giving equal weight to the hidden policy messages and thereby addressing the other, pressing social policy issues that they reveal might free us from our national obsession with illicit drugs, dilute the demonization of drug takers and sellers, and minimize the damage done to human beings and their environments by compulsive drug use. We might even, in the process, discover that we had reduced drug abuse.


I New York Times, February 18, 1993. (Unlike his predecessor, however, he also committed himself to fighting hard for gun control.)

2 Of the S13 billion federal drug budget proposed for fiscal year 1994, more than S8 billion was allocated for law enforcement, less than SS billion for public health efforts. Executive Office of the President of the United States, Budget of the United States Government, FY94 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1993), 47. For the following year SS.4 billion was allocated for drug prevention and treatment, 4I percent of the projected total. New York lmZ, February 8, 1994.

4 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Drug Abuse, "National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1991," Table 2-A, Dean R. Gerstein, and Henrick J. Harwood, eds., Treating Drug Problems, Vol. 1. (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press (Institute of Medicine), 1990), 91.

5 New York Times. May 12, 1992.

6 David C. Lewis, "Medical and Health Perspectives on a Failing U.S. Drug Policy," in Daedalus 121(Summer 1992), 178.

7 See, for example, Ethan A Nadelmann, "Thinking Seriously About Alternatives to Drug Prohibition," Daedalus 121 (Summer 1992), 85-132 and Richard Lawrence Miller, The Case for legalizing drugs (New York: Praeger, 1991).

8 The most cogent recent expression of this view of policy can be found in Deborah A Stone Policy Paradox and Political Reason (Glenview, III.: Scott, Foresman, 1988).

9 For a history of American criminal punishment, see David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).

10 See Clarence Lusane, Pipe Drearn Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs (Boston: South EndPress, 1991), 45-46; and Dorothy Robens, "Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality and the Right to Privacy," Harvard Law Review 104 (1991), 1421, n.6. Median sentence length for drug trafficking offenses (new coun commitments to state prisons) in 1989, the last year for which data are available, was thiny-six months for whites and fony-eight months for blacks. U.S. Depanment of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "National Corrections Reporting Prograr4 1989," November 1992, Table 1-7.

11 For an argument that forces of onhodoxy and progessivity, generated by religious groups, are locked in a struggle for the soul of American social values, see James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

12 The rate of change in state and local government revenues (in constant 1982 dollars) for the country as a whole dropped offsharply, from an average annual increase during the 1966-1973 business cycle of 6.5 percent, to 1.9 percent during the 1973-1979 cycle, and remained low, at 2.1 percent, during the 1979-1989 cycle. Economic Report of the President 1991 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Of Flce, 1991), Tables B-82 and B-3.

13 Ibid., Table B-94.

14 U.S. Depanment of the Census, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. Pan 2, Series V, 20-30.

15 Douglas Hay, "propeny~ Authority and the CrunS Law," in Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaug4 John G. Rule, E.P. Thompso4 and Cal Winslow, Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Societv in Eighteenth-Centurv Enrland (New York: Pantheo4 1975), 25.

16 The 1888 English translation of the Communist Manifesto uses the term "dangerous class" as a translation for "lumpen proletariat" in the German editions. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works: Volume 6. 1845-1848 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 494. The concept of the lumpen proletariat as Marx and Engels developed it differs from the "dangerous class" as popularly used in that it does not include criminality as a major element. It does, however, suggest a threat to bourgeois society by its very existence as a "passive rotting mass thrown offby the lowest layers of old society."

17 Michael Katz, The Undeservin_Poor: From the War on Povenv to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheo4 1989), 14.

18 Robert H. Bremner, From the Denths: The Discoverv of Povertv in the United States (New York: New York University, 1956), 5-6. A refinement on this association was the distinction between poverty and pauperism, the latter being the condnion of poverty dependent on public relief, which acquired a morally negative connotation almost as soon as poor laws were enacted. Katz, The Undeservine Poor, 13. Gertrude Himmelfarb describes the explich institutionalization of this distinction in England in the Royal Commission report of 1834 on the reform of the poor laws and the subsequent New Poor Law, which intensified the stigma of pauperism. The Idea of Povertv: Eneland in the Earlv Industrial Aee (New York: Random House, 1983), 159-174.

19 It has been suggested that the attitudes of Progressive reforms tbat gave rise to modern police forces in the early twentieth century helped shape perspectives on drug-taking as criminal-an attention to underworld associations of lower-class drug users rather than how their drug use met needs similar to those of users who were middle-class women and physicians. The association of "pleasure drug use" with lower class and minorhy people weakened the developing me&cal perspective and strengthened the criminal one; "the compassionate impulse to comfort the wretched became more and more a determination to administer a good swift kick to the wayward." Dean R. Gerstein and Henrick J. Harwood, eds. Treatine Drue Problems, Vol. 1. (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press (Institute of Medicine), 1990),


20 Frank Browning and John Gerassi, The American Wav of Crime: From Salem to Watereate (New York: Putnam, 1980), 266-27S.

21 David Musto, The American Disease: Orizins of Narcotic Control, expanded edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 245.

22 The particularly ferocious association of criminality and foreignness after World War I is discussed in John Higham, Straneers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism. 1860-1925 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988). Higham cites (p. 268) a Wyoming statute, passed in the early 1920s, that provided that aliens could not possess "any dirk, pistol, shot gun, rifle, or other fire arm, bowie knife, dagger, or any other dangerous or deadly weapon."

23 Murray Edelman, Constructine the Political SDectacle (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 74.

24 The position that the legalization proposal is racist is a corollary of the view, held even b some African-Amencan leaders, that, through a white "conspiracy," drugs were "deliberately and systematically brought into the blsk communities" to suppress or even exterminate them. Testimony of Dr. Lorraine Hale, U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, "Intravenous Drug Use and AIDS: The Impact on the Black Community," Hearing before the Select Commhtee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, 100th Congress, September 25, 1987, 39. See also Clarence Lusane, Piw Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Druzs (Boston: South End Press, 1991), 13.

25 Seattle Mun. Code, Chap. 12A.20.050 (1990).

26 Harriett Walden interview, January 16, 1992.

27 Jeri Ware interview, January 8, 1992.

28 "Report of the Seattle Human Rights Commission Regarding the Monhoring and Investigation of Citiiizen Complaints of Police Harassment," November 8, 1990, 20.

29 "Seattle's Drug War on People of Color," American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, July 1992. Seattle Times, August 14, 1992.

30 Seattle Timesj July 15, 1992.

31 Ibid.

32 Seanle Post-lntelligencer. August IS, 1992.

33 Seanle Times. April 25, 1991.

34 Steve Glorioso interview, September 18, 1991.

35 As of November 1, 1992, 110 of law enforcement (as opposed to civilian) personnel in tne Seattle Police Department were black, out of a total of 1232. Personal communication from SPD, taken from the irKanal "EEO Job Category Report," January 1993. As of January 1, 1993, 148 of law enforcement personnel in the Kansas City Police Department were black, out of a total of 1138. Personal communication from KCPD, taken from the intemal "Law Enforcement Breakdown by Ethnic Group Report," January 1993.

36 U. S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of tne Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1991 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office), Table 40.

37 British wnters also note a linkage between traditional concepts of the "dangerous classes" and modern concerns about disruptive youtb1 and tne extent to which drugs symbolize their unmanageability. See Virginia Berridge and Griffith Edwards, Odum and the Peode: Odate Use in Nineteenth-Centurv Endand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 237.

38 Wiley B. Sanders, ed., Juvenile Offenders for a Thowand Years (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 41.

39 See Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York: An Informal Historv of the Underworld (New York: Paragon House, 1927).

40 Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, "Anchorage Crime Commission Results," October 1988 unpaginated.

41 Michel Foucault, Discidine and Punish (New York: Pantheon, 1977), 7.


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